Children are more likely to take ownership of something if they are expected to contribute or participate in some way. At our house, in addition to individual lessons, we have Circle Time, and also a Friday co-op.
We’ve already talked about having the children gather their own supplies for their individual lessons, but quickly I want to emphasize that this extends to group lessons and other activities.
Generally, I keep all of our Circle Time supplies right behind me in my buffet in the dining room, so I get all of those things out myself. But there are additional materials that need to be retrieved. Sometimes, something has wandered off. Other times, we just need things we do not keep in the buffet, like a Kindle, a set of colored pencils, or our massive Shakespeare volumes.
I could go get these things, and, frankly, I feel lazy for asking. I also get impatient because I can usually do this faster than they can. But because I believe that this is proper for them — to do for themselves what they can and contribute to family learning when they can — I have them get the things we need. Sometimes, I ask for volunteers, and sometimes I assign a person.
There are lots of things we need to gather in order to be ready to leave for co-op. My preschooler can fill up the water bottles. The girls can take all of the nature study supplies out of the drawer and put them into the bag. E-Age-Eleven and Friend C. (who joins us for co-op), being the big boys they are, help carry everything, and sometimes they run into our corner grocer’s to purchase something to share at snack time, so that I don’t have to get everyone out of the car.
The next step after this seems to be, whether it be Circle Time or Co-op or individual lessons, to expect the children to participate. They need to recite what they know in a voice that can be heard, sing the songs as best they can, narrate if it is their turn, or answer questions if they’ve been called upon. I have even cancelled Circle Time once or twice when there was poor (and, might I add, grumpy) participation. When I did this, I handed out more chores to fill the time. I also explained that, though I love Circle Time, it is not for me. It is for them. The next time we met, participation was back to normal.
At co-op, they are sometimes under the tutelage of teachers who are — gasp! — not their mother. My shier child has to constantly be reminded that she needs to reply when these teachers talk to her. A distracted child might need to be reminded that we expect him to do as his teacher asks. A talkative child might need to be reminded to be quiet and listen, to wait for their turn and not talk over others. Each child has their own way of resisting participation, or participating inappropriately. I try to remember to communicate these kinds of expectations and reminders on our drive to co-op, so that it’s fresh in their minds when we get there.
At first blush, it may seem like participation is a separate issue, but I really think it’s connected. Participation is just another way of taking ownership of your own education. As a friend of mine recently said, why is it that I as a teacher am giving 100% and my student is giving about 75% … or less? This isn’t how it should be, and yet sometimes it really is what individual lessons can be like. Like gathering supplies, participating is what makes it all work, and what helps guarantee that they are the ones doing the learning, rather than engaging in some sort of parasitic relationship with Mom.
It can be tricky, especially with young children. We have to constantly be watching our children, being mindful of what is going on. Does this child really need this level of help from me? Is the current level of help appropriate for this child at this time? I have one child that used to rope me into doing the math assignment. I really don’t know if it was purposeful or just something that happened, but I had to put an end to it because I realized this child really wasn’t learning. The level of help I was giving was too much and stunted the student’s own intellectual growth. Now this child has to do everything on the page that can be done before coming to ask me for help (after the introductory lesson, of course).
The reason why I say it can be tricky is because we don’t want to neglect real supervision and teaching. My little girls often need to be watched like hawks. Even when they are working entirely on their own, I am there, glancing over their shoulders. This is necessary for one of them during math, especially, a subject in which she manages to confuse herself halfway through and then, if I’m not watching, she’s done half a page incorrectly — she has practiced thinking about it in a wrong way.
So having them participate to their fullest ability — doing work on their own when they can — doesn’t mean that we walk away and check our email or make a phone call. It simply means that we stop over-helping and allow the child the space in which to figure it out and accomplish it for himself.
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